Tate: Guenther a super sidekick for Big Ten commish

Chat with Loren Tate here.

The relationship of two compatriots might not be over — Ron Guenther might serve in some capacity for the Big Ten — but for now commissioner Jim Delany loses his closest ally when the Illini athletic director steps down June 30.

Whether it was the Big Ten Network, favorable bowl agreements, expansion that brought in Nebraska, or any number of major initiatives, Guenther has been "Robin" to Delany's "Batman." They always thought along similar lines. And during their lengthy terms, Delany has grown into the most prominent administrator in collegiate sports.

"Ron has always understood the big picture," Delany said Thursday, "and I haven't worked with a guy more collegial.

"At Illinois, he breathed loyalty because he gives it. He empathizes with coaches and was honest with those guys. A lot of directors give coaches support at one level (resources) but don't always stand behind them in tough times the way he does. And he demands that they do it the right way.

"Ron has never been a self promoter. Everything he has done has been in the best interest of Illinois."

No easy task

Few jobs are as complex, as thankless and as misunderstood as these major AD positions.

Where once it was the province of aging football coaches, it has become a complicated business operation emphasizing fundraising, compliance, PR, facilities expansion and the oversight of multiple men's and women's sports. ADs are thrown into the spotlight for a few weeks every five or seven years when they hire football and basketball coaches, some using search firms and committees like the one currently being used to replace Guenther.

And if the coaches don't win or infractions are committed, the ADs get the heat ... even if it is beyond their control.

Indiana, for example, has had 12 ADs since Bo McMillin stepped down after World War II, and five since Clarence Doninger took over in 1991. When Fred Glass took charge in 2009, fans called on him to uplift the ever-sagging football program ... as though he could. In other words, fire another Hoosier coach in hopes a miracle will happen.

Michigan turned the marketing business on its ear under Don Canham (1968-88) but has bumped along with five directors during the Guenther term. Michigan State shows six dating back to George Perles in the early '90s. Minnesota has hired seven since star athlete Paul Giel ended his 17-year term in 1988 ... and six of them stayed no more than four years.

The excessive turnover should tell you something about the job.

Leaving on a good note

Guenther was frustrated by the ill timing that wouldn't allow him to know who he'd soon be reporting to. Now Larry DeBrock's search committee is bucking a similar problem in interviewing candidates before a permanent chancellor is confirmed.

That seems as backward as naming Lou Tepper the football coach before choosing Guenther as athletic director in 1992. This unfortunate timing makes DeBrock's job difficult because prominent directors won't know who their boss is.

The good part, as mentioned earlier, is that Guenther leaves the department in far better shape than any of his predecessors.

Brace yourself for a history lesson. One after another, past Illini ADs have left a mess for their predecessors to clean up.

— George Huff was brilliant for his time, but his tenure was sagging due to football coach Bob Zuppke's disregard for recruiting by the time it became necessary in the 1930s. Zuppke's football teams went 41-52-4 in his last 12 seasons. Crowds were down. The home game against Michigan, which drew 67,886 when Red Grange ran wild in 1924, continued as the UI's biggest Big Ten draw — yes, Army and Notre Dame attracted more — but 1930s home dates against the Wolverines ranged from 20,000 to the low 30,000s. Nor was basketball anything special, the UI posting a 65-55 Big Ten audit in the 10 seasons ending in 1936, when Huff stepped down. The UI program had basically gone stagnant.

— Nor did it perk up under Wendell Wilson, caught in a firestorm over pro-con Zuppke zealots. Wilson was forced out by a dramatic athletic board vote in 1941.

— Young basketball coach Doug Mills took on the dual role just as he was bringing in Gene Vance, Andy Phillip and the Whiz Kids. Then, too, the arrival of Ray Eliot as football coach brightened the early-war picture. Mills' reputation was such that, at his peak, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for Big Ten commissioner. But it did not end that way. Losing touch, he was forced out in 1966, igniting the revelation by assistant Mel Brewer of an illegal "slush fund" that Mills had approved and participated in.

— The popular Vance took over an impossible situation after the Big Ten insisted that Illinois be dropped from membership unless head coaches Pete Elliott and Harry Combes were removed. Vance served until 1972, dealing with campus unrest, curfews and frequently uninspiring performances in the revenue sports. He was obligated to fire his close friend Jim Valek — they had served together at LaSalle-Peru — after the football team went 8-32 under him. And Harv Schmidt's basketball team slipped to consecutive 5-9 finishes in the Big Ten.

— Cecil Coleman ran a tight ship with weak revenue and little thought of expanding aging facilities as structural problems forced him to work on the stadium. The financial restraints were such that some NCAA qualifiers in minor sports were not allowed to advance. Chancellor Bill Gerberding, on campus less than a year, set sail for Washington but fired Coleman in 1979 as his last act, apparently assuming that anyone would be better. The UI was wading through seven consecutive sub-.500 Big Ten basketball seasons and the Gary Moeller era (6-24-3) in football.

— Illini spirit was uplifted by the arrival of flamboyant Californians Neale Stoner and football coach Mike White. Sellouts became routine, and it appeared the '80s really would belong to the Illini ... but it imploded with White resigning after the 1987 season due to multiple run-ins with NCAA investigators (his last three teams were 13-19-2), and Stoner stepping down due to various improprieties that included improper use of staff and a deepening debt.

— Football coach John Mackovic tackled the dual job when Stoner departed in 1988, and his success in football was remarkable considering the time consumed by the lengthy Deon Thomas case and his AD duties. He left for Texas prior to the 1991 John Hancock Bowl, and the UI promoted Tepper as head coach before naming Guenther as AD in 1992.

Many of these UI athletic directors had their moments before hitting the wall. Facilities drew little attention for more than a half-century. One after another, Guenther's five predecessors found themselves attached to events — some quite serious — that soiled the school's reputation and ultimately caused them to leave. And the facilities languished.

Like most who proceeded him, Guenther didn't see as many victories as he would have liked. But unlike past directors, he has provided his successor with all the ingredients needed for long-range success: state-of-the-art facilities for training and events ($300 million in improvements), sound finances, productive marketers, a respected compliance staff and strong academic support. More than that, he has taken the first major step in the long-awaited renovation of the Assembly Hall.

The other 10 schools in the conference (prior to Nebraska) averaged four directors each during his term. That means, on average, they changed directors every four to five years.

Perhaps, after 19 years, it was time for him to step aside. And in so doing, he is leaving the department in vastly better shape than anyone before him.

Tate's tidbits

— At one point this spring, Dan Hartleb's baseball team was 12-21 and in the process of losing 8 of 12 midweek games to in-state rivals. The outlook was dismal. But after a school year in which the UI lost virtually all of its close football and basketball games, Hartleb's battlers shared a Big Ten championship by rallying to win 11 conference games in which they trailed ... Matt Dittman's blast with two out in the ninth capping another incredible comeback (down 5-3, won 7-5) Saturday. Indiana swept co-champion Michigan State last weekend, and the UI swept Indiana.

— Longtime collegiate basketball official Ed Hightower, who recently slept in a recliner for seven weeks while recovering from rotator cuff surgery, has cut his workload under 60 games and says he'll retire within the next two years. He is part of the old guard that is being replaced by younger refs.

— The combination of leaving Utah (seemingly forcing Jerry Sloan's retirement) and landing in distant New Jersey has seriously impacted Deron Williams' reputation. A top-level guard, previously compared with the best, he was left off the 15-man NBA all-star team and was down the line of honorable mentions. It's hard to be recognized when you're not in the playoffs.

— Before predicting how Illinois will fare against basketball rivals Missouri, Maryland and UNLV, please tell me how those teams will change under Frank Haith, Mark Turgeon and Dave Rice. All three teams had distinct styles under Mike Anderson, Gary Williams and Lon Kruger. Will they be as good as they were?

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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ILLINIAJ wrote on May 22, 2011 at 7:05 am

Nice write up Loren. RG did a lot of good things at IL. Like you wrote, he would of liked to seen more victories in f-ball and he did what he could to create the resources needed to attract top athletes, but as we all know that doesn't always equal W's. His scheduling in f-ball was in the best intentions (to generate more fan and TV interest against name schools) but in this day and age, you have to schedule early boring games to get W's. Sucks...but

On b-ball front...it is a shame the RG legacy will be only remembered for the Self departure. It was ugly for sure and maybe someday RG will let the IL fan base on what was discussed. RG tried to make the IL B-ball program appear as a "destination" job but it isn't that easy of a sell to the "names" in the industry. Nor will it ever be a program where they offer 2 million to a arriving coach. You'd see a faculty boycott of epic levels.

In all, RG does leave the department in much better shape than the fan base thinks. One thing is for sure, no matter the hire, it'll never be viewed as the right choice.

JimOATSfan wrote on May 22, 2011 at 8:05 am

Interesting post Loren. An executive summary of the AD situations starting with George Huff was informative and an entertaining read. Truly does underscore the complexity of the AD position across the decades.

Not clear on who exactly selected Ron Guenther but they should get some pats on the back, even if 20 years later. I am in the RG did an excellent job camp. Remember fans that 9-to-11 other BigTen schools wanted the same winning seasons & championships.

One conclusion I draw is that the closer the ties to Illinois the better. Not because is it an exclusive club, but more because the new AD has got to want to be there, and stay there (at Illinois). Otherwise you are faced with the tug on the heart strings (i.e., Self goes back to Kansas), or tug on the pocketbook (Mackovic goes to Texas) or both, when they prove to be successful or great at their jobs.

Another conclusion I draw is that perhaps it is time to retain more than one person to be responsible for the vast scope current AD's find in the job description:

~ a complicated business operation

~ emphasizing fundraising

~ compliance

~ PR

~ facilities expansion (& asset management)

~ and the oversight of multiple men's and women's sports.

One approach I would recommend to the committee is to ask RG to sit down and draw up recommendations to assign 6 people to the above list from either current or recent staff members - as if in a scenario where the option of a national search was not feasible. Even if not chosen, I think this would be valuable data points for the search committee to use when evaluating candidates.

Whatever the approach, whatever the outcome it should prove interesting.

Makes one wonder which UI athletes earned their degrees in business and sports management. Seems like such a UI grad hire that is then successful in the Illini AD position would make the business & sports management schools|programs, even more attractive to future students and student | athletes.

Bringing in a grad like AD Phillips now at NW seems unlikely. I mean, have you visited the NW campus lately? The last time I was there I was astonished to see that even the rocky Lake Michigan shore line had been transformed into a clean sandy beach! Jeepers, + all of Chi-town. Point being that it might really be a much nicer setting for AD Phillips to be (then in CU.) Other candidates might not have such an unique option.

Lastly, I would not race to appoint a successor by July 1st. I think the existing staff can manage the day-to-day until an excellent AD is selected from three great candidates. Best of luck to all involved.

Go Illini!

pblillini wrote on May 22, 2011 at 9:05 am

Ah yes, Loren we all know you think RG is the best AD to ever walk and chew gum at the same time. It's too bad that history won't remember it quite that way. Guenther's "leadership" led us to be one of the worst 5 BCS football programs in his 20 year tenure. When football is the cash cow that accounts for 70% of all athletic revenue that is truly abysmal.

He will also be remembered for instituting student fees to subsidize the athletic department and "keep them in the black". We are the only school in the conference that does this. Well, Iowa charges students something like $15 a semester but that pales in comparison to the hundreds that UI students get charged.

He'll be remembered for keeping us at the bottom of the league in athletic revenue. Last year we were 10th, only ahead of private NW. So the worst public university in the league.

His compliance work was admirable save for the Marcus Mason violation. However, that should be an expected requirement not something to be lauded over.

His hiring of coaches outside of Bill Self was mediocre to poor. He also retained coaches far too long and gave some head scratching extensions and raises to coaches like Law, Weber, and Zook.

He renovated half of Memorial Stadium. Is that good? Again, Loren lauds Guenthers facility improvements but really he has just kept us up with the Joneses.

He was also unable to tap into new donor markets the last several years, which is one reason Hogan felt we needed new blood at the position.

All in all, Guenther was below average. The man cared but is that really the main requirement for an AD? It seems Tate thinks so.

Maybe he will be a better fit at the B10 office with Delaney. Meanwhile, we need to find our Barry Alvarez who can take advantage of the built in benefits that the IL AD position has to offer and elevate us to a national player on the athletic scene.

Jam wrote on May 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm

AD Guenther absolutely took a poor program and made it competitive. Naysayers are rather boring to listen to.

Hiring the right coaches will be important for any AD and that means forking over the necessary dollars to bring them in and keep them at least for a while.

pblillini wrote on May 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Jam - You mean that poor program that went to four straight bowl games before Guenther was hired?

Spin it anyway you want, Guenther's reign over the athletic department was mediocre at best.

Wenalway wrote on May 22, 2011 at 10:05 pm

The N-G is the PR arm of the athletic department, so it's no surprise things like this column are written.

If we're praising Guenther because he didn't land the University in Stoner-type messes, then the expectations must be pretty low.

tb wrote on May 23, 2011 at 8:05 am

My goodness what teams in the last 20 years have you guys been watching. They have been average at best. Who cares if the other professors are mad? The athletic dept. pays its own bills not the state or the university. The revenue generated by the 2 big sports at least part goes back in to the university. Do you think Duke cares what a professor thinks when it pays Coach K. 4 million a year. By the way its a pretty darn good school too. Even Standford is up too 2 million for its head coach. We should be one of , or at least in the top 4 in salaries in the country. That's what makes our job a destination job and we should be. We will not be great in sports until we want to be.